What To Do When You're Underemployed


Words by Jessica Lutz // Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

When people post #ilovemyjob, I get a tiny pang of jealousy.

There are parts of my job that I enjoy tremendously, and some of the people I work with are truly amazing human beings. However, I don’t spring out of bed in the morning because, yippee, I’m off to work!

After I got my master’s degree in 2013, I spent two and a half years working retail, desperately trying to get a position in my field. Those two and a half years of underemployment were extremely trying. I gained weight, I was depressed, I was anxious, my relationship was an absolute hot mess, I was stressed about money, and nothing I did seemed to yield any results. I was on the verge of giving up and settling for a life of, “Would you like fries with that?”

A huge argument with my then boyfriend (now husband) put everything into perspective. I was miserable. So miserable, in fact, I hated my life. I didn’t know what to do about it, but I knew I had to do something.

I switched my focus from my job search to how to be happier and spent a few hard months trying to find a way to be happy despite my circumstances. The absolute best part of my reckoning was that I realized I was underemployed. There was a name for my experience! Better than that, there was a bit of research about what being underemployed is like. I devoured the research and was somewhat shocked to learn that, hey, wait a minute, this is all normal for someone going through underemployment. Here I was thinking I was a unique hot mess when in reality every negative thing in my life was actually the result of being underemployed.

Less than a year after I decided to figure out how to be happier, I had an interview to become a temp at a university, and that temp position turned into a full-time position of my own, somewhat related to the field I’d spent years trying to break into.

At first, it was all so new and different that I was just grateful to be there, working 9-5 in my own office. Over time, the newness wore off. I wanted more - to be doing what I went to graduate school for. After a year in my position, I applied for my dream job and I knew this was it. I went to the interview and aced the in-person mock interaction with a student in front of four interviewers. This job was in the bag.

The day I expected to hear from them came and went. I got a generic rejection email instead. As it set in that I’d have to stay at my current job and deal with all of the things I was sure I’d get to leave behind, a funk set in. I’m still in that funk months later. I’m still underemployed, and though the job I have now is better than retail it’s incredibly frustrating that I can’t get a job doing what I want to do.

I want to say I’m not deterred and I’ll keep trying until I get what I want, but that would be a lie. Before, I knew where I was headed and it was only a matter of time until I got my dream job. Now? I feel lost. Do I want to keep pursuing this? How long do I keep trying? How many rejections can I withstand? What if I can never get a foot in the door? How will I ever pay off my debt?

Some days, I’m grateful for the privilege of a full-time job with set hours and sick time. Some days, I deal with the coffee maker at work and consider taking a lighter to my diplomas. It’s hard.

I spend a lot of time in my own head, constantly trying to think of a plan: a new career, a business I can start, a book I can write. It’s exhausting. What I need is to focus more on me. What do I need to be okay with where I am? I’ve been here before and the only way out is through "you doing you".

Even so, I’m in the middle of what can best be described as my 12/36 crisis. The more frequent my crises get, the weirder my ratio gets. But hey, limiting ourselves to quarter- and mid-life crises may not be enough anymore. Like with any identity crisis, I have a lot to think about and a lot of unanswered questions. What helps me the most is remembering that this is my first professional job, and therefore, it’s going to suck some days.

The other good side of this is that I get to be picky. When I was working retail, I was desperate to take any job that wasn’t in retail. With a steady non-retail job, I can take my time and really get a feel for what I want next, not just in terms of the type of positions I’m applying for, but the culture, the pay, the free snacks, the flex time, the work from home policy… all of the things I didn’t know would matter before. I’m not limited by my desperation and that’s a good feeling.

Jessica Lutz is a writer based in Pittsburgh, PA and her motto is, 'Be a fountain, not a fire hose.' Jessica is most interested in positive psychology, underemployment, and storytelling - she likes to write things that remind people that they're not alone and it's never too late. When she's not writing, you can find her reading, looking up inspirational quotes, or making a list.

Underemployed | Job | Career | Potential